Two coordinators – past and present – view the partnership
by Howard Williamson
Hans-Joachim (Hanjo) Schild led the partnership from the early 2000s until his retirement two years ago. Marta Medlinska has been a member of the partnership team for many years and, since Hanjo’s retirement, has been the co-ordinator of its work.
HW: Happy birthday to the partnership, happy birthday to us (as someone who has worked so closely with you since the start)! First of all, are you at all surprised that the partnership has lasted so long?
HS: Yes and no. When we started we managed three different covenants (training, Euromed, research) and it took a while to merge them to one single framework agreement. It needed also some time and some efforts to give the partnership a clear identity and profile, not always appreciated by the institutional partners since they considered us being a service provider for their respective programmes. But, step by step, we managed to profile the partnership as a dialogue project between practice, policy and research. Still today, I believe that this is the very specific profile and image of the partnership and most probably a key to its survival over 20 years.
MM: Yes and no indeed. I first heard of the partnership in its toddler’s times, when I started my adventure in the European youth field. To me that may feel like yesterday but it certainly was not… The fact that the co-operation between the partner institutions is reconsidered, every time it is prolonged makes it “young” and dynamic. Every time when negotiating a new grant agreement we felt a thrill – will the partnership go on? Even if the question is more “how” rather than “if”, the thrill is there. How to choose what is relevant to the young people in Europe, fitting within the institutional context? How to bring to the youth field stakeholders in Europe knowledge and tools that are useful in their daily work? As we engage with them in a dialogue, or “trialogue”, research–policy–practice, it works.
HW: How have the partnership’s framework and focus evolved over time?
HS: As mentioned, we had in the beginning three strands with training, research and Euromed co-operation. But from the start of the merged framework programme in 2005 it was my intention to give the partnership a profile as a tool for the development of what we called knowledge-based youth policy and practice. At that time no other tools in this regard existed and it needed some time to bring the three corners of the triangle together. Not an easy exercise since policy and practice to a large extent ignored research (and researchers), and researchers didn’t want to lose their independence and risk becoming intrumentalised by policy and practice. Our intention was to open the ivory tower and to communicate on an equal footing. Thanks to some committed people on all sides we succeeded. To mention some: Nico Meisch from Luxembourg and Jan Vanhee from Belgium on the policy side, Lynne Chisholm and Howard Williamson on the research side, ourselves on the side of practice. Not to forget at that time René Weingärtner and Peter Lauritzen, both from the Council of Europe, the one Director for Youth and Sport and the other Head of Youth Policy; they backed us up and encouraged us to develop this avenue… and there was also Pierre Mairesse on the side of the European Commission who was of crucial importance in supporting these developments.
MM: We were obviously adapting also to the evolving priorities of the partner institutions. Their visions of what the partnership could and should do were always negotiated, and their own respective frameworks were also evolving. In 2013 we were preparing a new framework partnership agreement and a working meeting was held symbolically halfway between Brussels and Strasbourg, in Luxembourg. Its approach was very down to earth, organic, I would say: what priorities are key to both partner institutions and should be the core of the partnership’s work, and what exactly, on a yearly basis, are its expected outcomes? This sounds simple but it made a difference. The logframe created then for the years 2014-16 is, by and large, still valid, with its focus on a better knowledge on youth participation and citizenship, social inclusion of young people, and youth work.
HS: In addition, through the close co-operation with experts in policy, research and practice the partnership also functions as a kind of antenna reflecting hot issues and emerging priority topics – by providing knowledge and evidence on relevant topics concerning young people in Europe, by being a kind of truffle pig finding those topics and exploring them and then disseminating results and findings. This is what it brings as the main added value to the work of the partner institutions.
MM: And this is what makes it really exciting to work for the partnership. That think-tank function constitutes a great part of its potential and deserves being further strengthened. I would like the partnership to be a hub for thinkers, a bridge-builder, a laboratory in which the partner institutions try out new ways of advancing their youth agendas in Europe. Also a peer learning platform for doers, policy makers and youth work practitioners, who need a space to share, learn, reflect, debate. To my mind, the value and main to-date achievements of the partnership stem from that approach.
HW: Talking about the partnership’s achievements, which ones would you like to highlight?
HS: Over the years, there have been some considerable achievements in various fields. One has already been mentioned: the dialogue between practice, research and policy; I believe the partnership has to a very large extent contributed to current standards of knowledge-based policy making and practice. Other achievements are more content-related: one of the drivers of the discussion on recognition of youth work and non-formal learning was certainly the partnership, in particular through the two pathways towards recognition papers and related activities. Another theme has been the reflections on the relevance of learning from history and the workshops on the history of youth work, six so far, the seventh happening soon. Also the European Platform on Learning Mobility played and plays a crucial and critical role for all mobility programmes. Not to forget the regional activities in the Southern Mediterranean, in South-East Europe and in Eastern Europe and Caucasus, which were intended to improve the role and relevance of youth work and youth policy in the three regions. These examples should not devalorise the other projects that the partnership has been running in its 20 years of existence.
MM: Referring to research–policy–practice, the so-called “golden” or “magic” triangle, indeed the partnership has been preaching it from the start and making it happen in the youth field. And we made it three-dimensional, so a pyramid, as young people, besides acting in all the three corners and being at the heart of the triangle, are stakeholders in their own right. It is our way to plan, prepare and implement our activities, a quality mark, which benefits everyone involved. We talk the talk and walk the walk.
In terms of themes the partnership has been addressing I am proud of the continuity and building up our work in these areas: participation/citizenship, social inclusion, and youth work. In relation to each of them we try to better understand the reality, verify the assumptions, anticipate developments, draw conclusions and popularise them.
And I am proud of our publications, which largely contribute to that. The series of 13 Training kits for youth work practitioners, 24 (at the time of the writing) Youth Knowledge Books, soon 27 issues of the Coyote magazine. All enlarge their readership and evolve.
And one last thing I would like to mention – we dare to experiment. Exploring rarely walked paths and seeking new ones is exciting!
HW: Is this the value of the partnership to the youth sector in Europe and the partner institutions?
HS: The main value has certainly been the promotion of the “trialogue” between youth research, policy and practice. The partnership has also promoted some key topics such as the recognition of non-formal learning, the value of youth work for society and individuals, and in particular in non-EU regions the relevance of youth work and youth policy for the development of civil society. Not representing any institution any more I think the value for the European Union was to support in general some essential youth policy strategies and in particular to reach out to neighbouring regions. For the Council of Europe it contributed to a balanced youth policy development, in particular in countries and regions that have less privileged democratic traditions. Not to forget the pecuniary fact, in view of many budgetary problems that the Council of Europe has been facing, that the partnership helped to finance activities which would have been closed or not even initiated without the financial contribution of the EU.
HW: It sounds like a win-win situation. Is there any need for strengthening the co-operation on youth between the partner institutions?
HS: I see many needs to strengthen the co-operation, for various reasons: first of all, both institutions share the same values and similar political objectives: youth policy and youth work are crucial elements for strengthening democracy, human rights and social inclusion. Why are there still separate policies that still sometimes produce competition instead of co-operation? Secondly, budget-wise, all the money invested is coming from the citizens of Europe. Why are we wasting money for parallel systems? More synergies and joint activities are needed. And thirdly, the division of Europe between EU and non-EU countries should be overcome, step by step. The Council of Europe stands for the 50 signatory states of the European Cultural Convention and in this regard it is the bridge-builder. We must create similar living conditions in the whole of Europe. This function becomes more and more important, particularly in view of the current weakness of the European Union.
MM: There are some concrete, to my mind possible and much-needed, avenues such as fostering youth policy standards compliant with the European values Hanjo has mentioned, and developing a common European youth work agenda. The latter has already been happening, to an extent. Take the European youth work conventions. Those developments in youth work at a European level happened within the framework of first one and then the other partner institution. High-level officials from both spoke at the closing of the 2nd Convention, affirming their institution’s commitment to further developing youth work. And they kept their promise. Discussing this together and agreeing on how to join forces would strengthen that commitment and, in my view, increase the speed of developing youth work at a European level.
HW: What are your most meaningful or striking memories and moments in relation to the partnership?
HS: There are many, mostly positive memories, in particular with regard to the high acceptance by those concerned with youth issues, by policy makers, practitioners and researchers. Especially when looking at the role of youth researchers today and their daily involvement in European-level activities I see a lot of progress compared to earlier years when the partnership started its research activities. A striking moment was the so-called Arab Spring and the fact that many young people who had participated in our citizenship education or other activities were key actors in these movements (without saying that our impact was so high, but at least we encouraged young people to stand up for their rights). The few negative memories are mainly related to the attempt to limit the partnership to a simple service provider for the institutions, since it risked killing all the creativity that is needed to go forward in new and innovative ways.
MM: Between research, policy and practice, between the north and the south of the Mediterranean, east and west of Europe, pan-European and international co-operation structures – there were many moments of thinking we have little in common and that there is so much to explore and build together, if only there is the willingness to do so. Some of the personal memories date from even before working in the partnership team. In 2001 I joined the long-term training for trainers organised within the training covenant. That was overall a personal life-changing experience for me and I am still meeting those I met then: they are also still active in the European youth field. On behalf of the Polish National Agency for the EU youth programme I hosted one of the training courses on European citizenship and an editorial meeting of Coyote – that was when the seed of the idea for me to move to the European level got planted. Since I joined the partnership team I have done a bit of almost everything, including taking over its co-ordination. That has involved learning from many great people, though at times it has been uneasy, not least due to the short-term contracts that discouraged some very competent colleagues.
HW: Do you have any particular wishes for the partnership into the future?
HS: My vision would be to “institutionalise” and enlarge the partnership as a kind of European Agency on Youth, similar to CEDEFOP for vocational education and training. I believe that such an agency is very much needed and compared to other policy fields overdue. The specifity of such a youth agency would be that it is run by both institutions, the European Union and the Council of Europe, though in financial terms more or less fully financed by the European Union (due to the different financial capacities of both institutions). For the team of the partnership, I would wish for more stability and longer-term contracts, so they can concentrate more on their tasks.
MM: I would like us to continue building knowledge and stimulating debate and co-operation. And serve the joint needs of the partner institutions and the European youth field stakeholders. The ultimate purpose is making a positive change in the lives of young people in Europe and beyond, and the more time, energy and resources we can dedicate to that, the better.
Illustration by Siiri Taimla